Andrew Wakefield’s Legacy

Most scientists toll in obscurity – checking, rechecking, and ever-so-slowly pushing scientific understanding forward. Few lucky individuals will make the big breakthrough and live on forever in the history books, with such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, or Edwin Hubble. History also preserves the infamous as well: Pons and Fleischmann, Franz Mesmer, and now Andrew Wakefield. These are the ones who – well intentioned or not – were not content to wait for their work to be vetted; they took their discoveries directly to the public and to our detriment.
In February, 1998, Andrew Wakefield called a press conference to announce he had found a cause of autism. After placing a scope into the intestines of a handful of autistic children, he had found inflammation which he said was the result of the measles virus. This virus, he claimed, came from the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. Just like Mesmer, Pons and Fleichmann, Wakefield’s claim was about to crumble under scientific scrutiny, but he had already opened the Pandora’s box: he had falsely implicated the greatest life-saving intervention ever invented, and worse, told the public before his claim was verified. Public confidence in the MMR vaccine was shattered, and even Wakefield’s solution of separating the MMR vaccine in to three shots did not prevent vaccination rates from falling. Hundreds of children were hospitalised, and dozens died from what should have been a preventable disease.
Other scientists tried to repeat Wakefield’s findings but were not successful. More and more of Wakefield’s results were found to be anomalous. Eventually, disturbing news about the original Lancet trial began to emerge due to the investigations of Brian Deer. Andrew Wakefield’s funding was provided by a lawyer who was trying to build a case on the behalf of parents who believed their children suffered complications after receiving a vaccine. Wakefield also had a patent on a separated MMR vaccine, and stood to make a lot of money if the public lost confidence in the combined vaccine. The lab that found the measles virus in the children’s intestines has serious methodological issues, to the point of incompetence. The children’s medical records did not match Wakefield’s records, and therefore raising the spectre of outright scientific fraud. The Lancet, after far too long, finally retracted the Wakefield paper, and Wakefield was found guilty of grossly unethical behaviour by the Britain’s General Medical Council.
Over a decade has passed since the original study, and where are we now? We are certain – as certain that the earth revolves around the sun – that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet the fear the Wakefield spawned remains with us and the return of vaccine-preventable diseases remains a constant threat. The anti-vaccine movement given wings by Wakefield’s study is still going strong despite study after study refuting Wakefield’s original claims. There are also the children, now numbering in the hundreds, who suffered and died from diseases that should have been a distant memory of a time before vaccines. This is Andrew Wakefield’s legacy, and he has left it to us to pick up the pieces.
More Reading:

Vaccines and Autism
What’s the Harm?: Vaccine Denial
Jenny McCarthy’s Body Count
Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit MD
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